In the realm of presidential politics, the rhetorical distance between maverickhood and flakiness can be vanishingly small—as Chuck Hagel learned, or should have learned, a week ago in Omaha, Nebraska. Surrounded by a roomful of national reporters who’d flown halfway across the country, at Hagel’s behest, to learn if he would enter the fray, the Republican senator mounted the podium and, in the space of 552 words, transformed himself from a brave iconoclast into a flagrant prick tease. “I will make a decision on my political future later in the year,” Hagel said. “I believe there will still be political options open to me at a later date.”
The reaction in the political world to Hagel’s non-announcement announcement was a mixture of derision and disappointment. In the four years that have now elapsed since the start of the war in Iraq, Hagel has consistently and fiercely criticized George W. Bush and his administration not just for their execution of the conflict but for the theory they employed to justify it. He has opposed the “surge” and more or less called the president a liar. He has assailed his congressional colleagues for abdicating their responsibility to check the White House’s power. Indeed, before his befuddling performance last week, Hagel had emerged in the eyes of many as the last sane Republican.
But within the GOP itself, and especially among the cadres laboring on behalf of the other Republican presidential hopefuls, the immediate response to Hagel’s deferral had a rather different tenor. Summing up the views emanating from the camps of the party’s trio of top-tier runners—Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney—a senior strategist heaved a sigh and said, “It means he’s out, and thank Christ for that.”
What lies behind this sense of relief isn’t fear that a Hagel candidacy would prove a juggernaut. (Few GOP-primary voters today even know who Hagel is, let alone what he stands for.) It’s the fear of what a real, full-throated debate on Iraq would do to the dynamics of the race for the Republican nomination—and, in particular, to the campaigns of the Big Three, all of whom have adamantly thrown themselves behind Bush’s policy. That Giuliani, McCain, and Romney would prefer to discuss Iraq as little as possible, clinging to their pro-war postures and praying for a miracle in Baghdad, is understandable, at least in the short term. But when it comes to their longer-range dreams of occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it may also be suicidal.
Even among some longtime Bush loyalists, the reflexive fealty of the Republican wannabes to the president on Iraq seems bizarre on its face. “The American people have decided what they think about the war and are ready to look to the next stage,” Matthew Dowd, Bush’s chief campaign strategist in 2004, said recently. “What I don’t understand is why the Big Three GOP candidates have all chosen to follow the president’s approach rather than offer up their own alternative.”
For Giuliani and Romney, the pivotal moment arrived in January, when Bush announced the surge. Though both had been broadly supportive of the administration on the war, here they were presented a ripe opportunity to create a degree of distance between themselves and Bush’s increasingly bloody-minded approach. But instead, after allegedly consulting a bevy of military experts, both chose to double down. Meanwhile, for McCain, the decision was at once more straightforward and more wrenching. Having long argued that the problem with Bush’s conduct of the war was the deployment of too few troops, it would have seemed ludicrous for him to oppose the surge—even if he knew that 20,000 more soldiers in 2007 was way too little and much too late.
The calculations underlying all this, of course, revolve around the character and views of the GOP-primary electorate. According to the most recent New York Times/CBS poll, a whopping 75 percent of Republican voters still approve of Bush’s job performance and 61 percent support his handling of Iraq.
Thus have Giuliani and Romney, a pair of candidates without an iota of foreign-policy or national-security experience between them, determined that the safest course is to fasten themselves to the president and hold on for dear life. And thus have McCain and his advisers gamely tried to make lemonade from the lemons served up by the Bush administration. “Even though voters may disagree with McCain on Iraq, I think they see him as a credible voice of authority on the issue,” says Mark McKinnon, formerly Bush’s media guru and currently a McCain adviser. “Even people that disagree with him will respect him for taking a position that he believes in and where he obviously isn’t doing it for political reasons—I mean, obviously!”
The glaring difficulty with this line of reasoning looms down the road, beyond the primary season. By catering to the pro-Bush and pro-war sentiments of GOP voters, any one of the Big Three might well succeed in securing the Republican nomination—only to find himself saddled with a position on Iraq that dooms him in the general election, where the votes of independents will be crucial. The professionals behind the Giuliani, McCain, and Romney campaigns are all perfectly aware of this danger. But they argue that fretting about it now would be putting the cart before the horse. “My experience,” says one such strategist, “is that primary campaigns that spend too much time looking toward the general election tend not to work out too well.”
All of which makes perfect sense—except for one thing. What if the Republican-primary electorate turns out next year to be more pragmatic than the received wisdom holds? I know, I know, the idea sounds nutty, but there are signs that it might actually be true.
Consider the rise of Giuliani, whose positions on social issues, as everyone knows, should be anathema to the GOP’s hard core; and yet, so far, they have not impeded him from becoming the de facto front-runner. Then consider the precipitous decline in the fortunes of McCain, whose status as the poster boy for the surge seems not only to have hammered his poll ratings but rendered him a lifeless and dyspeptic figure. Now, heaven knows there are other explanations for both these phenomena. But it doesn’t strike me as entirely implausible that the evolving and contrasting reactions of Republicans to both men are rooted, to some degree, in a desire to back a horse with a fighting chance to win next November.
In fact, if you look at the numbers close enough, you can discern the possibility that Republicans might be open to a candidate who deviated from the Bush line on Iraq. To take but one striking example: In that same New York Times/CBS survey, fully 58 percent of Republicans aver that flexibility about when the U.S. should withdraw from Iraq is more important than a commitment to stay until the endeavor succeeds, with just 39 percent saying the reverse.
Data like this (and similar numbers turning up in internal campaign polls) have by no means gone unnoticed by the GOP Big Three’s high commands. Together with the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq, they explain why Giuliani recently went on CNN and declared that he wasn’t fully confident that the surge would work. They explain why McCain, a few days later, launched his now-famous broadside against Donald Rumsfeld, calling him “one of the worst secretaries of Defense in history.” And why Romney has lately taken to talking an awful lot about the “competence” he’d exhibit in matters of war and peace—as opposed to whose incompetence, pray tell?
Indeed, among many campaign insiders, the question is no longer whether but when one of the Big Three will break decisively with Bush on Iraq—and which of them it will be. As one anonymous strategist told the Washington Post the other day, “If you’re a Republican [candidate], you’ve got to figure it out. The point is running out where you can say, ‘I support the president.’ Even if you end up with Richard Nixon’s secret plan for getting out of Vietnam, you’ve got to have something.”
Which brings us back, in a roundabout way, to Chuck Hagel. There are countless reasons to believe that Hagel, should he decide to abandon his Hamlet pose and jump into the race at some point in the future, wouldn’t have a hope in hell of being a serious contender. Though his record, as judged by such organizations as the Christian Coalition and the American Conservative Union, puts him to the right of McCain (and even, by some measures, of Sam Brownback), his liberalish positions on such issues as global warming and immigration would make him a hard sell in the GOP heartland. And that’s not even mentioning his loud apostasy on Iraq and his hostility toward Dubya.
But a Hagel entry would, I think, be salutary—and not merely in the sense that it would delight non-Republicans like me. By putting the question of Iraq front and center in the GOP primaries, Hagel’s presence would open up a necessary debate within the party. It would force those candidates who choose to stand by Bush to hone and sharpen their arguments. And it would create a context in which deviation from the unthinking and self-destructive current consensus on the war would seem less shocking and disloyal, and maybe even desirable. It’s easy enough to see why Giuliani, McCain, and Romney wouldn’t welcome Hagel to the race with open arms. For each of them, Hagel would be a royal pain in the ass. But in the end, he might also serve the function of saving them from themselves.